Poverty and Africa

Posted on Nov 28, 2015 in GWOBlog
Poverty and Africa

If you want to understand poverty in Africa, it wouldn’t hurt to start out by getting your head around poverty in America. Many people would argue that the two come from vastly different histories and can’t be compared, but the dynamic similarities are striking — and useful if we want to find solutions to them both.

One of the people that I’ve been mentoring lately (we’ll call him Sam) is an American in his early 30s. He has fantastic skills that make him the perfect candidate for a myriad of tech company positions, but no one will look past his resume, so he’s stuck in a job that pays less than $10 an hour and which doesn’t use any of his technical skills at all. He comes from a family where making $13 an hour seems like a really good job. In fact, that’s what his father made right up to the day he retired. He’s going to college, but he’s drowning between his work hours, family responsibilities and classwork, and something has to go. And even though he’s working, he doesn’t really make enough to make ends meet.

Sam had an internship at great company over a year ago where he got to use his tech skills and show off what he can do. It went so well that he was offered a job there. Unfortunately, serious illness struck right before the offer came, and the realities of his recovery meant that he had to turn that job down. When he was healthy again, the job opportunity was gone and he couldn’t get his foot back in the door anywhere else. Being a good long term employee in retail positions and having an associates degree only hurt him. It’s all fine and dandy that he can hold down a job, but it’s just not what the employers were looking for.

His skills are still good, and he uses them by helping others at his local hackerspace (for free) and by doing small jobs for friends he knows can’t afford a “proper professional” (for way less than he’s worth).

He’s still working on his bachelor’s degree, and he hopes that once he gets it he’ll be properly employable. In the meantime, whenever he thinks that things are getting better, a new crisis comes along and knocks him back down. He’s not alone.

This is the story of millions of generation Y and millennials in America. Folks who try to pull themselves up by their bootstraps get kicked back down before they can get off their knees. The mini dramas that unfold make the more privileged among us roll their eyes. ”So what if your car got towed?” They say, ”Just get it out of the impound and keep moving!” But when you barely make enough money to cover rent, food and gas to get to work, any little bump can set you back ten steps. Medical costs? There’s just no way to pay those. Your credit rating has taken a hit? If you find yourself needing to change apartments, you just might not be able to find a place that will take you.

Forget saving. If you can’t buy in bulk, you pay more for every ounce of food or square of toilet paper. If you need a loan, you will pay the highest interest rates and fees. Your debts, whether they be school loans or medical bills or just credit card debt you ran up so that your apartment would have bare floors, just keep piling up when you can only make the minimum payment each month.

All of these things lead to some pretty surprising survival methods. Priorities are turned upside down. A day out with your kid can become more important than car repairs. If you know that you don’t have the full amount to pay for new brakes and that if you try to save for two or three months some emergency will come up and devour that savings anyway, you figure that is better to make the best of this moment than worry about what you can’t fix. You may spend “too much money” eating out, but with two or more jobs you don’t have the time to cook, so there’s not much choice. You may find yourself stuck with a truly urgent situation and no money to cover it, so you swallow hard and take out a high interest payday loan or, worse, a title loan against the car you use to get to work. These are the behaviors that poor people get ridiculed for, but they are often the only thing that keeps them afloat at all.

Whole books have been written about this experience, from Nickel And Dimed to Hand To Mouth. Countless blog posts and editorials have explained these dynamics again and again, but the situation isn’t getting any better.

Open drainage ditch in Dar Es Salaam

photo by: Lisha Sterling license: cc-by-sa

Back in May when I came to Tanzania for the first time I took in the deplorable state of the infrastructure here and started to ask the question “Why?” Why are most of the roads here unpaved and even ungraded? Why are the public water points, most of which are dug and developed by foreign donors, so poorly maintained?* Why are the sewers open drainage ditches instead of enclosed pipes? And why are there so few safe walkways across those ditches?

I’ve been in other low income countries before, but I’ve never seen conditions so bad in a major city. I hadn’t even visited the rural areas affected by the project I came to work on yet, and I knew that conditions of the infrastructure outside the city was even worse. So, like a loose tooth that you poke at with your tongue until it falls out, I kept turning these questions over in my head. I didn’t keep the questions to myself, either. I asked everyone I could what they thought about these things.

One of the early answers that I got was that it’s just about priorities. Tanzania has resources. It should be fabulously wealthy, but it isn’t. It’s all corruption, a few people said. Money comes in from donors, it gets misspent, and the infrastructure doesn’t get maintained. I was shown some streets in the wealthy neighborhoods that were paved to very high standards. “Of course,” my guide said, “they have plenty of money to pave the street in front of this ambassador’s house.” Another person suggested that the ambassador’s country had paid to have that street done properly. “No one in Tanzania would have cared that much,” they said.

During that trip, I also learned about one district where all the water points work. In fact, I was told that most people even have water in their houses. This magical unicorn of a district had a difference, though. Their water system was run as a church project. A Christian ministry had set up the system and the local and foreign Christians were still the key players in running the water supply organization. They had received massive amounts of money from an international NGO along with deep mentorship and hands-on support to run this program, and that’s what made it work.

I left Tanzania feeling frustrated and still confused. I felt like there was a secret here that I needed to uncover. This isn’t just a Tanzanian problem, I thought. It’s an American one, too.

In America we have one of the world’s best highway systems. We have roads built in layers that don’t crumble after the first hard rains. In fact, our roads withstand snowstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes. We have bright paint that marks the lanes on all our highways and even most of the busy streets in small towns. Our highways have wonderful reflective Bott’s bumps to help us see the lanes at night and rumble strips at the edges to wake us up if we’re getting tired and vere out of our lanes. These are fantastic, luxurious roads by international standards, but they belie a horrible secret. Our system is crumbling beneath our wheels.

In 2013 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US bridges a C+ report card. 11% of American bridges have been rated as structurally deficient which means that they need to be fixed or replaced as soon as possible. This is a job that is going to cost billions, and all the politicians agree that it has to happen soon. But no one is voting for that job to get done now. Congress doesn’t want to touch that funding battle with a ten foot pole.

And that’s not the only American infrastructure that needs serious attention. Our railways are horrifically out of date. Our public transit in general is considered unfit for use by most Americans. The sewer systems in some cities are overburdened from population growth or simply rotting into oblivion. The Internet infrastructure in America is far behind that of Europe or the mid- to high-income countries in Asia. (Even Israelis and Palestinians have faster internet at home than you do, dear American readers.)

Why is that?

Over the months between visits to Tanzania I thought about this over and over. It’s got to be about priorities, I told myself, but why are the priorities messed up, and how can we fix them?

About two weeks before returning to Tanzania, I traveled to The Netherlands to work with our Dutch partners on the Water Point Mapping and Maintenance project, also known as Maarifa.** While I was there I regaled my long suffering hosts with incessant questions and half baked ideas. They listened patiently, told me about their research and sent me reports to read. I listened, read, thought, and kept asking more questions. Finally, a few days before getting on the plane from Amsterdam to Dar Es Salaam it hit me.

The priorities are messed up because of poverty-based thinking.

An ordinary neighborhood road in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania's largest city.

photo by: Lisha Sterling license: cc-by-sa

I am not talking here about some theory in which abundance thinking is going to solve all our problems. We can’t magic this away by thinking that there are resources that don’t exist. What I’m talking about is the psychological condition in which a person (or in this case, nation) is plagued by poverty such that it affects their entire decision making process. When looking at the available resources and the known pressures against those resources together with the unknown emergencies that are undoubtedly going to count against those resources in the near future, a poor person or nation is going to make very different decisions than a rich one will.

Tanzanian infrastructure is built almost entirely by outside donors or international loans. The World Bank, USAID, UKAID, an assortment of international water charities, Christian mission groups, you name it. The problem is that these donors pay for new builds, but they don’t generally pay for maintenance. They will pay for “innovation” but they won’t pay to keep good things working smoothly when other monies run out. It is not just that the international community figures that Tanzania should be able to maintain things on their own revenue. Ideally they would support this but it is not how the game is played. Accountability for aid money spent is strongly enforced and goals that can only be measured beyond the project’s lifespan are just not acceptable. The stark reality is that Tanzania can’t maintain things on their own, and no one can prove the success of these long term projects in the timespan of a single grant period.

Just like Sam with his excellent skills, it seems like Tanzania should be doing a lot better than it is, but it’s stuck. Part of the reason they are both stuck is because neither is getting paid fairly for what they produce. In Sam’s case it’s a problem of a minimum wage that doesn’t match basic living expenses. In Tanzania’s case it’s a problem of not getting a fair price for raw materials. In both cases, there are wealthier people elsewhere who have determined that by keeping these “controllable costs” down, they can increase their profits. In both cases there are faceless multinational companies sucking up all they have to give at a price that doesn’t allow them to take care of their own basic needs.

We can stop right there and ask, “Who has it worse?” Because, clearly the people of Tanzania are in much worse shape than Sam is. He has clean water to drink, after all, and it comes right out of the spigots in his kitchen and bathroom. He has never encountered a cholera outbreak in his hometown. His kid doesn’t have to sleep under a mosquito net to reduce her chances of dying from malaria. When he drives to work, his car has passed a smog check and we can be pretty sure it isn’t venting carbon monoxide into the passenger compartment. He even gets to drive on all paved roads… Even if the bridge he crosses might be at risk of collapse. (We’ll just leave that for another post, shall we?)

So, yes, there is a difference of degrees, but the same dynamics are in effect. I’m not quite through exploring these dynamics. There’s so much more to them. The analogy works as well when looking at issues of donor behavior and the welfare system, and it gives some insight into corruption in low income countries as well. There are some answers at the bottom of all this, but first we have to dig deeper into the questions.

*Studies by the ITC at University of Twente show that it takes anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to get broken water points fixed. In one district alone they found that only 40% of the public clean water points were actually functional.

** Maarifa comes from the joining of two very similar open source systems for reporting problems with water points using the ubiquitous feature phones of Africa: SEMA (Tell me in Swahili) and Taarifa ( Information). We are taking the best parts of these two open source projects and combining them to create Maarifa (Knowledge) which will include feature phone-based reporting of problems along with a ticketing system and web based reports that can track both individual water points’ maintenance life cycle and the combined statistics for a village, district or region.

Note: I am currently in Tanzania working on Maarifa with SNV, The University of Dar Es Salaam and the University of Twente with the financial support of UKAID through their HDIF grant program.

HDIF Human Development Innovation FundFunded by UKaid from the British People

A view of Dar Es Salaam from the sky

photo by: Lisha Sterling license: cc-by-sa